Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What Is the Paleo Diet? Paleo 101

You or someone you know wants to learn what this whole "Paleo" thing is all about. You've heard about it from friends raving about how they lowered their cholesterol, dropped pant sizes, and stopped taking their diabetes medicine. You've seen it on Facebook, Twitter, and now the media is covering stories about Paleo. Well, this is the post for you. 

This post is intended for the beginner who heard about this "Paleo" diet and wants to know more. When I did a Google search for "what is the paleo diet" I found some great resources, but ones that were either too long or focused too much on the wrong things in order to explain what Paleo is. You'll find many different definitions and viewpoints (both good and bad) about the Paleo diet, but I try to break it down nice and simple here so brand new people can get an understanding for what it's all about. Let's dive in and see what the Paleo Diet is and is not.

The Paleo diet is typically explained as trying to emulate the diet of our paleolithic ancestors. By doing so, we are consuming foods that our body have evolved to accept and avoiding foods that our bodies would reject. I will go into this idea further down below, but for now, this is a basic explanation. Many people familiar with the Paleo Diet would say it was popularized by Dr. Loren Cordain and Robb Wolf, but Walter Voegtlin actually suggested in 1975 that the ideal human diet should emulate that of our ancestors'. Since then, many people have popularized this idea of an ancestral diet or similar diets, such as Mark Sisson, Art Devaney, Weston A. Price Foundation, Kurt Harris, Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, and Mat Lalonde.

Paleo is not hard. There are no magical secrets, but rather, consistency. If you've ever had eggs and bacon for breakfast, you've eaten paleo. If you've ever had a salad and steak for dinner, you've eaten paleo. It's just that most people include grains, extra sugar, and other processed foods. Here is my take on what Paleo is:

"Paleo, or paleolithic nutrition, is an anthropological and scientific template for eating real, whole foods and avoiding inflammatory ones. But like all templates, it should be examined and then tweaked for one's needs." - Chris Plentus, Constantly Varied
NomNomPaleo's interpretation of MyPlate

5 Things about Paleo that are TRUE:
1. "Paleo is a recommendation for eating real food" - at it's very base, Paleo is about the QUALITY of food. To find out if food is generally good for you, consider if: it grows and dies; it can be found in nature; it goes bad; it has been around for generations. If you need a factory to make it, it's not food! In general, you'll be eating meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, spices, and nuts/seeds. You might think that this is too limiting, but I bet there are foods that you haven't even tried yet!

2. "Paleo is scientifically founded" - Paleo is not just eating what cavemen ate. In fact, very little food around today is the same as 50,000 years ago. Instead, we need to focus on what is biologically and chemically good for our bodies. Scientifically there are foods that are better for the human body and things that are harmful. Real, naturally occurring food is generally better while processed food is not. This is not just pseudo-science, this is the real deal! Links at the bottom of this post will lead you to more discussion about the scientific evidence.

3. "Paleo avoids grains" - this is where most people get off the boat, especially the conventionally "healthy" crew. In short, grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, etc) contain a number of things that are scientifically harmful to humans: gluten, lectins, phytates, and anti-nutrients being the most common. These things damage the gut lining, are pro-inflammatory, and can cause diseases that you wouldn't even realize. The argument for grains is that they are "heart healthy" and "whole grains are good for you." There is in fact, no science that back these claims, but more just "whisper down the lane" conventional wisdom that keeps grains around. If you look at the nutrition profiles of vegetables, they are powerhouses of vitamins and nutrients compared to whole grains. For those that are skeptical, I am not going to re-invent the lightbulb, but rather, send you over to Mark Sisson where he takes the most common arguments FOR grains and debunks them with scientific links and literature.

4. "Paleo avoids dairy" - This would be the main issue separating a "Paleo" diet from a "Primal" one. I mentioned a number of people associated with ancestral diets above, and many of them differ on the issue of dairy. At a basic level, adult humans did not evolve to drink another animal's milk. However, some experts agree that if the source is grass-fed and the person is not allergic, some dairy could be fine. While dairy is technically not Paleo, it IS supported by the Weston Price Foundation, Mark Sisson, and other highly regarded experts. They would all agree that grass-fed is absolutely better than conventionally grain-fed dairy.

5. "Paleo has been known to reduce or even cure diseases" - While this is not a medicine per se, it makes sense that feeding your body with natural food will typically have it respond in a favorable manner. For instance, there are plenty accounts of people's diabetes going away (their insulin is managed incredibly well on a paleo diet); fat loss is very common (for many different reasons); and even things that you may not associate with food lessen or even go away: ADHD (gluten free anyone?), Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis, and yes, even acne, as my friend Laura Pappas has discussed. In terms of fat loss, now there is no need to count calories because nature has a funny way of maintaining insulin levels and leptin sensitivity (the "feeling full" hormone). If we eat protein and fat, we feel full longer. You simply can't eat a ton of calories of spinach. Thank you nature!

Pasta? No way. Spaghetti Squash.

Things about Paleo that are FALSE or MISLEADING:
1. "Paleo is the way cavemen ate" - Yes, this is a nice and tidy heuristic for explaining Paleo to grandma, but it is NOT the be all, end all. While we can use this idea as a framework, it should not be the rule of eating. In other words, just because it's paleolithic does not make it "good;" conversely, just because it's neolithic does not make it "bad." Here are two examples: our paleolithic ancestors had honey available to them, but this does not mean we should eat a pound of honey. The reverse is true too. "Cavemen" did not have ghee (clarified butter) but experts would agree that it is a great thing to cook with and consume. Our ancestors also didn't have the internet or cars, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't use them.

2. "Paleo is low carb" - this one is super misleading. When people hear that grains are harmful (not just to celiacs!), they say "where do you get your carbs?" Carbohydrates can come in the form of vegetables and fruits. Yes, your diet will probably be lowER in carbohydrates, but it does not mean you have to live VLC (very low carb) or no carb. In fact, for CrossFitters or people who are involved with glycogen-demanding activities, higher carb is going to be better. These carbs are best served in the form of sweet potatoes, white rice, and squash.

3. "Paleo is high protein" - again, not true. Although you might know a lot of CrossFitters who eat a ton of protein, this is their choice of tweaking the macronutrient profile of their food. Remember, Paleo describes the QUALITY of food, not the QUANTITY. Yes, you can even be vegetarian and paleo, or even vegan and paleo. Personally I don't think these are best choices for health and longevity, but you CAN do it.

4. "Paleo is a diet" - If by "diet" you mean a short term way of losing weight to look good for bikini season, then no, I would not go in with mentality. This is not a cleanse, not a crash diet, not a way to starve yourself. However, if you mean "diet" as in an everyday manner of eating that is sustainable, healthy, and live-able, then yes, it's a diet. There's a difference between regular car maintenance and car wreck repair. Same for eating.

5. "Paleo has a hard and fast set of rules" - This is probably the most frustrating thing when discovering what Paleo is. Yes, there are lists of Paleo and non-Paleo foods out there, but these are meant to guide you and offer you ideas for foods that you may not have thought of. Something to know is that there is NO perfect food out there. (and certainly no "super foods" such as the over-hyped acai berries). So don't even bother with "is this Paleo? is that Paleo?" Use your noggin and do some of your own thinking.  Do what works for you. As I mentioned above, some people can consume a little dairy in the form of butter, cheese, even milk. Is this technically Paleo? NO! But is it going to kill them? Probably not. I eat grass-fed butter and lots of animal fat, so does that make me not Paleo? Some hardliners would say so, but that's ok. When you do your research, you're going to be confused and probably want a black and white answer. Well heads up cowboy (or cowgirl), you're not getting one. Everyone's situations and needs are different, so what works for one person might not work for you. You might agree that raw broccoli is good for you, but for the person with a thyroid problem, it's a very bad thing. Paleo is contextual!

a classic favorite: Mexi Salad

 At one point, I was against using the term "paleo" because too many people think of the caveman reference as the only heuristic. However, I've realized it's too ubiquitous to ignore. The term is unique and draws attention to some guidelines for eating rather than a specific one-size-fits-all diet. It's very easy to catch someone's attention by mentioning Paleo rather than "anti-inflammatory, insulin sensitive diet."So although I've now embraced using "Paleo," there is much latitude and context within that term, especially when it comes to things like dairy, rice, beans, etc.

I'm going to leave you with my definition of Paleo again. It's probably not the best one out there, but I think it works and encompasses the ideas of using science to figure out what is better for our bodies, while allowing individual circumstances to guide our food choices.

"Paleo, or paleolithic nutrition, is an anthropological and scientific template for eating real, whole foods and avoiding inflammatory ones. But like all templates, it should be examined and then tweaked for one's needs." -Chris Plentus, Constantly Varied

Since you're probably reading this as a beginner to Paleo, check out the links below for more information and leave any questions you have in the comments section. 

THE NEXT STEPS (previous blog posts that will help you)



Everyday Paleo


  1. I've had a couple of friends ask about Paleo in the past couple of days and this is a perfect explanation. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  2. Dan - if you're looking for a black/white answer, it's "no." Rice doesn't contain gluten like wheat, but it does have phytates, trypsin inhibitors and haemagglutinin. HOWEVER, these bad things are found in the hull or shell, so cooked white rice is basically starch. If someone is sedentary and looking to lean out, I would not recommend it. But if you are a CrossFitter or need to replenish glycogen, cooked white rice is a decent choice. Bottom line is that for most people eating white rice every once in awhile or immediately after a workout, you'll be fine. Some people might have huge insulin spikes after eating rice though, so I can't say it's meant for everyone.

  3. Great post Chris, thanks for breaking it down and helping to give some of the history, and I like the common questions/thoughts approach!

  4. I must have missed something. In point two of the misleading myths, you say that white rice is acceptable to get carbs...did I miss something? I agree with sweet potatos and squash but rice?

  5. correct. You may get some hardliners that say "no rice!" but progressive paleo peeps (you like that alliteration?) would agree that it's a fine source of starch and glycogen replacement. I'm in the latter camp. Sweet potatoes and squash have better variety of other nutrients, so those would be top two.

  6. btw, those hardliners are also usually the people who argue that "cavemen didn't eat it, so people shouldn't." I'm more concerned with what the human body does with food, rather than if cave people had it (see #1 of misleading points)

  7. what about the white/brown fight?

  8. brown means the germ/husk is still on which contains all the bad stuff (phytates, trypsin inhibitors, etc) so go with white.

  9. Great Post. Melissa had the Fundamentals of Nutrition tonight and we are officially on a Paleo Diet. Were following what she learned at the Fundamentals as well as what we have read in all of your blogs and such. Only thing were eating sometimes that we "should not" is white rice. Half Asian, have to have some rice. We are excited, and looking forward to it. Thanks Chris, and Thanks Laura.


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